Pastures New: Exploring Fforest Farm, Wales

A self-professed lover of long-haul adventure travel finds inspiration and innovation at an eco-camp in Pembrokeshire

This article first appeared in Vol. 32:

most of my life, I’ve travelled in relentless pursuit of the
new. I didn’t understand travellers who returned to the same
destination or stayed Near when they could go Far, opting for dull
domestic travel to places like Cornwall when international dazzlers
such as Colombia beckoned. I’ve road-tripped around New Zealand
three times but never bothered with Wales. Newness was my drug; I
was hooked on the adrenaline hit of culture shock.

But 2020 bent us all into a different shape of traveller, so my
big Covid- compliant trip was to Cardigan Bay, in Wales. Even the
name Cardigan – an anglicisation of the county Ceredigion – sounded
suffocatingly twee, soporifically familiar and stubbornly unexotic
to my ears, and although I’d never been to Wales, I was worried it
wouldn’t be new enough for me.

Within minutes of arriving at our cabin at Penbryn Beach,
however, I was in the sea, drenched in newness. The seawater felt
different from the saltwater I swim in most mornings in Margate, my
adopted hometown on the Kentish coast. This water, the Irish Sea,
was softer and silken, less astringently saline than the workaday
English Channel I’m used to bathing in. The sand underfoot was fine
and shimmered pewter, nothing like the gritty, heavy-duty yellow
sands of a daytripper destination like Margate.

Floating in the sea at Penbryn on my first night in Wales, I soaked up this newness gratefully because, after months of lockdown at home, I really, really needed the new.

I dipped my head underwater and emerged to find a whole new
world. The cliffs flanking the shoreline were stark, dramatic
granite, not flinty, white Kentish chalk. The sign naming the beach
bore thrillingly unfamiliar Welsh words, announcing the newness of
my location. I dunked under the water over and over again, to wash
the journey off, watching interesting strangers gather on the sand
at dusk, throwing sticks for dogs and building fires.

My mum and dad stood among them, two of my favourite and most
familiar faces – yet faces I hadn’t seen for months during
lockdown, because they live in Belfast. We’d met here in Cardigan
Bay for a week of family camping that would be familiar and
comfortable and cosy, but also different, transformative and
thrilling all at the same time. Floating in the sea at Penbryn on
my first night in Wales, I soaked up this newness gratefully
because, after months of lockdown at home, I really, really needed
the new.

It felt strange, in a sweet way, to be the one planning a
camping holiday for my parents, having grown up on family trips to
the Share Discovery Village on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, and
Keycamp holidays in Brittany. I did things in a more 2020 manner,
scouring Instagram for inspiration and settling on a week at
Fforest, dividing our nights between the three different Fforest
locations: farm, coast and town. Fforest’s founders, Sian Tucker
and James Lynch, had successful careers in textiles/ illustration
and design/ architecture respectively. But after living in
Shoreditch for 25 years, they took their four young sons to New
Zealand for a new way of life.

Eventually, it dawned on Sian and James that much of what they
had travelled across the world to find for their family, they
already had right on their doorstep – or, to be precise, on Sian’s
childhood doorstep in west Wales. So they moved back to Britain,
bringing with them the fresh eyes and eclectic experiences of
worldly travellers. Sian and James soon set about making the old
new, and the new old, taking over a historic farmstead and lovingly
transforming it into the sort of eco-camp that characterises rural
New Zealand. They opened Fforest Farm to guests in 2007, a cluster
of yurts, cabins, domes and lodges combining an internationally
informed design aesthetic with the sort of homegrown Welsh heritage
of which Kiwis can only dream.

Our first two nights are spent at Fforest’s coastal site
overlooking Penbryn Beach, where we walk the cliffs between its
namesake village and the seaside town of Llangrannog and eat fish
and chips from The Beach Hut as a sea mist descends upon us. On the
way back, we scramble down to the secluded Traeth Bach – locals
call it the Secret Beach – at the halfway mark, and I swim in sea
and mist. As I’m briskly towelling myself dry, dad points out a pod
of dolphins turning somersaults in the sea. There are only six
other people on the beach and everyone claps their hands with glee.
I know it’s facile to make comparisons, but I’ve been
whale-spotting in Kaikoura in New Zealand twice without seeing a
single whale. And the 300km Pembrokeshire Coast Path – a 15-day
jaunt if you do the entire trail – is now looking just as enticing
as the 70km Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds did
when I hiked those more exotic headlands a few years back. Wales is
making me feel a whole lot better about not being able to fly
across the world for the next few months.

We move on to Cardigan town, which, in its shipbuilding prime in
the early 1800s, bustled with ropemakers, gasworks, foundries,
lime-kilns, timber- yards, sawmills, brickworks, smithies,
warehouses, tanneries and malthouses – and had the same number of
pubs (a reliable barometer of a port’s industrial heft) as Bristol
did then. Here, Sian and James have remodelled an old granary
warehouse into stylish, faintly Scandinavian-style loft-apartments
that overlook the Pizzatipi, Fforest’s open-air pizza restaurant
beside the River Tei. Mum and I spend a morning trawling the
charity shops of Cardigan, which should be high on the list of all
vintage lovers. I find a 1960s Welsh- wool cape, 1970s bamboo
ornaments as gifts for friends, a stack of old Sibelius records and
a slinky 1980s bomber jacket. These charity shops teach me more
about Cardigan’s social history than any museum could.

Aside from the perennially popular Pizzatipi, which we love so
much we go to twice (I’m tearing up my travel rulebook on this
trip, remember?), Cardigan’s current culinary hit is El Salsa, a
Mexican street-food joint in a warehouse parking lot. Here I taste
slow-cooked pork tacos that transport me straight back to Tucson
and almost make me cry. I was in Arizona in early March 2020, on my
way to Austin to cover SXSW, before everything cancelled and
changed and crumbled and I had to jump on the final direct flight
home. My tacos taste bittersweet for a second, then they just taste
fucking delicious.

This week, my dad drives me around like a spoiled teenager, and
so we visit cute beaches and towns nearby such as Poppit Sands,
Newport and Nevern, but I check that it would be possible to do
this trip without a car, travelling by train and taxi. Fforest
Farm, our final stay, is just a 45-minute walk from Cardigan town,
through a dramatic, fern-strewn gorge that feels like Borneo or
Costa Rica, certainly not Wales. Although what did I expect of
Wales? What did I not expect of Wales? And why? Admittedly we’re
blessed with eerily beautiful weather, balmy autumnal sunshine, but
this week, west Wales is feeling like a buffet of the best bits of
my exotic adventures around the world – adventures that demanded a
lot more time, cash and carbon than this one.

This is a long way from the Keycamp holidays of my childhood, but I still get to feel pleasingly feral, falling asleep to the sight of stars, waking up to the dawn streaming through the window panels of the dome and making our coffee outdoors in the bush kitchen.

Fforest Farm is the original site, the Fforest mothership, with
a cosy firelit pub where it always feels like December, even in
June, and a new “infinity deck” overlooking fields and wetlands,
reminiscent of swanky safari lodges that gaze across the Maasai
Mara. There’s also an on-site shop selling glamping essentials such
as Black Bomber cheddar, fresh sourdough, oat milk and organic
dark-chocolate mints. I could survive here for a long time. I’m
sleeping in a dome tent, which feels palatial, a driftwood
chandelier suspended above a bed crafted from reclaimed wood,
strewn in handwoven Welsh woollens. As a camper in my soul, this is
romance to me, and I’d honeymoon here in a heartbeat. This is a
long way from the Keycamp holidays of my childhood, but I still get
to feel pleasingly feral, falling asleep to the sight of stars,
waking up to the dawn streaming through the window panels of the
dome and making our coffee outdoors in the bush kitchen.

Sunday is our final night and we gather with other guests for
the weekly Fforest supper, a feast of fresh razor clams with leeks,
roast chicken and rosemary potatoes, and gooey brownies. I thank
Sian for having us and mention that I think a lot of the best
hotels, restaurants and businesses are run by returning locals,
ex-wanderers who combine peerless local knowledge and respect for
the community with an outsider’s perspective and experience. “It’s
the same with guests, though,” she says quietly. “It’s the guests
that have been around the world that appreciate Fforest the most.”
Sian’s words linger with me, after we say goodnight, as I climb up
the hill to Dome One. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps all my
international travels haven’t ruined homegrown trips for me after
all. Perhaps, well, perhaps they’ve been preparing me for this.

The Lowdown

Open throughout the year, self-catering lodges and domes from
£100 a night, minimum two-night stay.

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